Spencer DeWald is a question asking machine.  I like this about him.  He is engaging and intellectually curious, qualities we academics find hard to resist.  Early indications are that he also asks questions others find interesting.  My blog post answering his  question on building your personal brand has had more hits than any other TweetBack Thursday post so far.

So, it is only fitting that Spencer be my first repeat questioner. He asked me to provide advice on how students could get others to help pay the cost of getting their graduate degree.  Spence, I’m going to have a little fun with you here.  Despite having my tongue-in-cheek, I hope you find my answer useful and that you will still invite me back to speak to your SMPS group. I am also going to focus my comments solely on a masters degree in business.  My answer for a Ph.D. would be somewhat different and would make this post too long.

Spencer, you need investors.  Donations are not likely. Government will loan you the money, but pure need based scholarships are rare for graduate students in business.  So, you will need to make the case that you are likely to generate a good return for your investors.  There are three primary suspects.  The first are your parents.  Maybe you didn’t cost them much as an undergraduate and they feel they still owe you.  Maybe they are worried that you haven’t blossomed yet despite their sizable commitment and will easily fall victim to the fallacy of sunk costs.  Maybe they just love you or believe in the value of higher education, but face it they are the most likely to invest on terms that are favorable to you.  The problem is, the older you get, the more embarrassing it becomes to ask them to foot the bill.

Option 2 are directors of admission and the people they report to: deans like me.  If you want money from people like us, you are going to have to show that you are helping improve the quality of my program.  You can do this by having GMAT scores, an undergraduate grade point average and relevant work experience that is near the very top of my applicant pool.  A GMAT score 650 or above, a 3.5 GPA and two to five years of good work experience will get the attention of many good schools. A sub 600 GMAT, 3.2 GPA and little to no relevant work experience will not.  On occasion a student may do so well in an admission interview that they wow people into thinking they will get a really high paying  job upon graduation and boost the school on this important outcome measures, or exhibit some unique quality that will increase class diversity, but that is rare.  The bottom line is the competition for program-based scholarships and assistantships is really stiff.  You will need an excellent profile to get people to invest.

Option 3 is your employer.  Generally speaking, large companies that promote from within are the ones most likely to help subsidize your education. They see it as an investment in developing their workforce. You should ask about these opportunities during the interview process. My sense is that companies have been less willing and able to do this in recent years as they have been forced to cut middle management positions, tighten budgets and limit promotion opportunities.  You are also more likely to get these benefits after demonstrating your potential to the company through a few years of excellent work performance.  Note that this type of work  performance is also what admissions directors look for when making financial offers, so this type of experience helps on two fronts.  The downside is that it is likely to get mom and dad off the hook.

Even if all these options fail, recognize that a masters degree obtained at the right point in your career to augment and update your knowledge and skills is a good investment.  There is no reason to rush. Get a few years of work under your belt, gain some perspective and come back ready to maximize your yield from the program.

Paul Jarley, Ph.D., is the dean of the UCF College of Business Administration. He blogs every week at http://www.bus.ucf.edu/deanThis post appeared on November 29, 2012. Follow him on Twitter @pauljarley.